How To Improve Education
Jim Blair

She Says

The nationally syndicated column by Deborah Mathis on Tuesday February 26 dealt with education, and especially as it applies to black kids. She quotes Jonathan Kozol that "we already know what works" and then lists clean bright schools, eager teachers, and other factors (some capable of being quantified but many not).

She then explains that unless the federal government guarantees lunches, kids will be under nourished, and/or full of sugar and fat from junk food. (She wants to have it two ways on this one.)

She correctly points out that "as a group, black children consistently produce lower standardized test scores and grade point averages." But, we are told, "their failures ...are often deliberate acts of rebellion against a system" that she says tries to make them surrender their ethnic identity and "approximate whiteness".

I Say

In 1966 the federal government directed the Coleman Commission to study the factors which determine educational results: What is it that works, to improve what students learn? They compared many schools around the US and attempted to correlate student performance with all the factors which are thought to improve education. You know, class size, books in library, teacher training, even money spent per student. The things that Mathis say that we know work. But they found that none of these make any measurable difference! I have since seen the Tennessee study that claims some improvement in student performance if class size is reduced, but it must be cut to about 15 students to make much difference.

Then what is it that will predict how students will do in school? More on that later.

On the lunch program, if the only nutrition that some kids get is from their school lunch (as I have often heard claimed) then that suggests a problem that is far bigger than anything that a school lunch program can fix. But let's be honest about this: the most wide spread nutritional disorder for US children is obesity caused by overeating. And this is more common among the poor than in the general population. See "Greens vs Beans" on my web page for more on this.

On "acting white", I think it is commonplace for black kids who study and take school seriously to be accused by other black kids of "acting white". If this attitude has become a part of "black culture" then there is a problem that is only going to be made worse by trying to teach "sensitivity" to, and "respect" for, "black culture".

And of course, implied in all this is the claim that "poor" kids don't do as well in school as rich and middle income kids. But there are some problems in this picture. I read in the local newspaper that the Madison school district "has found that poverty is the best predictor of low student achievement". And, yes there is a correlation between family income and school performance. But there are also enough exceptions to imply that the usual explanation is wrong.

The Reality

But for starters, there is a language problem here: the word "poor" in front of "student" has an ambiguous meaning. Does it mean the student if from a low income family, or does it mean the student doesn't do well in school? At least part of the problem in understanding the situation is confusion in words. George Orwell pointed out in his novel 1984 and also in an essay, that the words used can shape thoughts. At any rate, in the US at least, many have come to believe that low income causes students to do poorly in school.

But look a bit closer. Asian-American kids often come from "poor" (low income) families but on average do very well in school. Thomas Sowell in Race and Culture quotes the figure that Asian kids from families with income under $6,000 per year score higher on the SAT math section than black kids from families with eight times that income. Is this true??

There will probably be some debate over the exact numbers, but anyone who spends much time around a university knows that there a proportionately higher number of asian and lower number of black students in math, science and engineering courses. And I have known too many good students from low income families to believe that income is the cause of student performance.

And an important demonstration that spending money on nice new buildings and other such physical facilities doesn't improve student performance was the experience of Kansas City. Under court order, the school system spent a vast amount of money on new facilities. They even destroyed my old high school (Paseo) to build a nice new school on the same location. But student grades or test scores did not improve. The only way they got some "average school scores" up was import some "good" students into the school. And this only hides the fact that "poor" students are not doing better.

The Explanation

Then what is the answer? Well the Bell Curve proposes one explanation: it is genetic. Asians are smarter and blacks dumber than "whites" (except for Jews, who are smarter than anyone). Is that the answer? Maybe, but there are some major things that the genetic theory does not explain. For one. black kids adopted by white families have IQ's similar to white kids. (Is that why some states have passed laws to stop trans-racial adoption?) And kids fathered by US soldiers in Germany have similar IQ's whatever the race of the father.

There have been articles claiming that the teachers don't know how to relate to black kids, and that they aren't taught enough about black history. Or that teachers should learn "black english" (see my web page article on BEV). But does anyone really think that asian kids do so well because of all the emphasis US schools place on asian history and culture? Let's get serious.

The one factor that I think is most important in predicting how a student will do in school is the family of the student. If the student has two parents, married to each other, and who encourage the student and stress the importance of education, odds are the student will do well. Whatever the race or income.

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